Never let it be said that Domenic Palermo doesn't know how to make a memorable first impression.
Last fall, Palermo's band Nothing scored the opportunity of a lifetime. The Philly/NYC shoegaze quartet was booked to record Dance on the Blacktop, its third full-length album for extreme-metal mainstay Relapse Records, at the idyllic Dreamland Recording Studios in Woodstock, New York, with producer/engineer John Agnello, whose work on records by Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth and Nada Surf had long ago earned him "deity" status in the Nothing camp. "Everything he did is, like, what I sweat, you know?" Palermo tells Revolver. "When that became a reality, I was like, 'We're going to make a killer record — there's no possible way this can't at least be decent!'"
Totally stoked, and deeply committed to starting the recording sessions off on the right foot, Palermo arranged to meet his bandmates — fellow guitarist/singer Brandon Setta, drummer Kyle Kimball and new bassist Aaron Heard, who also fronts the hardcore outfit Jesus Piece — in Philadelphia on the first day of recording, so that they could all take the group's van up to Woodstock together.
"I was so adamant about it," he laughs. "I had everyone meet up at 10 a.m. I was like, 'Everybody's gotta be there, we can't be late! It's the first day! We're working with this legit-ass dude in this expensive, legit-ass studio! We can't fuck around!'"
Unfortunately, Palermo didn't bother to heed his own advice. "I went to a wedding the night before, and then I ate mushrooms at, like, three in the morning," he chuckles. He finally arrived at the agreed-upon meeting spot three hours late, "tripping my face off, still in a suit, no clothes with me for the next two weeks, and I'd lost my phone."
Palermo collapsed in a rumpled heap in one of the van's seats, awakening just as the vehicle was pulling up to Dreamland, several hours behind schedule, to be greeted by a befuddled Agnello. "John was just standing there, like, 'What happened?' We were just like, 'Long story!' We ran in, got to work and tracked a song. It was pretty funny. John was like, 'What have I gotten myself into?'"
Palermo would be the first to admit that he's made some dumb moves in his life. As a kid, he spent most of his free time finding new ways to fuck up on the streets of Frankford and Kensington, the crime- and drug-ridden North Philly neighborhoods where he grew up. "There was nobody who could tell me shit when I was a kid," he recalls. "I would get in trouble, and I was sent to all those programs, counselors, 'scared straight' shit, but scaring me didn't work." Today, Palermo doesn't exactly live on the straight and narrow, but he's constantly struggling against the devil on his shoulder to try to make a positive, not negative, impact on the world around him — whether through his bittersweet music or through philanthropic community work. Like the most interesting people, he's full of contradictions. He's a hardcore kid playing dream pop, a troublemaker doing good, a messy personality with an acute eye for artistic detail, a cynic almost painfully aware of the beauty in the world.
Palermo's path to this place in his life has been long and bumpy. For a time as a kid, he seemed to find salvation in the city's hardcore scene; his band Horror Show attracted an ardent following. But in the early 2000s, he stabbed someone during a fight with a rival hardcore crew outside a Blink-182 show in Camden, New Jersey, an act which landed him in prison for two years on an aggravated assault/attempted murder rap. Though he's steered clear of incarceration since then, Palermo has continued to indulge in plenty of booze- and drug-fueled shenanigans, and he's occasionally found himself in the middle of a few really nasty situations — most notably in 2015, when he was beaten within an inch of his life in Oakland by some muggers who tried to steal his phone. In addition to putting him in the hospital with a fractured skull, the incident left him with symptoms similar to those associated with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, the same degenerative brain disease that often afflicts professional athletes.
"It's kind of all theoretical at this point," he says of the tentative CTE diagnosis that he's received. "They can only really diagnose it posthumously, but they've seen some static in my MRIs that kind of resemble what CTE patients have, and there's been a lot of physical and mental warning signs: anxiety, fear, paranoia, depression — awful, awful depression, sometimes. That's kind of always been in my head, but it's something different now. I wake up sometimes just shrouded in this blanket of the deepest, darkest depression. There's really no reason why. It's just like, as soon as I open my eyes, it's there."
In the grand scheme of things, then, Palermo's arrival at Dreamland in an exceptionally bedraggled state wasn't really such a big deal; and despite their rather inauspicious entrance, Nothing's time at the studio turned out to be tremendously productive. Tracking mostly live in what was once the spacious nave of a 19th century church, the band laid down a significant portion of Dance on the Blacktop, capitalizing on what Palermo refers to as Agnello's "knack for picking up imperfection." Though tracks like "Zero Day," "You Wind Me Up" and "I Hate the Flowers" all rush forward in confident bursts of power and noise, a closer listen reveals numerous intriguing and amusing sonic quirks scattered throughout the album.
"One of the many things I love about John's recordings are these weird things, where there'll be a string slightly out of tune, or this weird feedback, or a gasp of air caught on tape," Palermo explains. "We've always been so pressed to have everything really pristine in our recordings, but I really sought a lot of that imperfection on this record. We had a massive amount of shit to sift through, like, 'Is this pushing it too far? This guitar is clearly out of tune!'"
Lodging in a creepy (and allegedly haunted) cabin on the bucolic studio property, Palermo and his cohorts were able to spend their three weeks at Dreamland concentrating almost entirely on making music. "We'd finish at midnight, all be in bed by, like, one or two, and then wake up the next day and do more tracking. It was like a long camping trip, or something ... To me, it was like the perfect scenario. I had to check myself every once in a while, like, 'Damn, I'm sitting in this fucking studio in upstate New York, with one of the most brilliant producers ever, recording a record, eating and drinking. How did this happen?'"
For all the darkness that pervades Nothing's music — and the cynical musings on the futility of human existence that regularly emanate from Palermo's lips — Dance on the Blacktop definitely packs a palpable sense of joyful release, or at least a gleefulness amid the sonic chaos. Palermo attributes this to Dreamland's uplifting pastoral atmosphere, as well as to the almost Zen-like shift he's recently experienced in his personal outlook. "I still feel like a pretty pessimistic, cynical guy," he says. "I'm not ignorant to the fact that life is always going to be peppered with a whole lot of misery and pain. But if you're not going to check out early, you might as well just gas up and take it for a ride. That's kind of how I look at [life] now. I kind of just stand there in awe of how chaotic and absurd everything is. It's still beautiful, you know?"
Though the band has often been portrayed by the press as a bunch of nihilists, Palermo bristles at the notion. "That's one thing that really irks me," he insists. "That's never been what I am. I care about things, I care about people. I want to see things get as good as they can possibly be. But I also know that, in my opinion, things can't get to be as good as they should be."
After all, a true nihilist wouldn't get involved with an organization like Rock to the Future, a nonprofit that offers free after-school music programs to the underserved kids of Philadelphia. One afternoon this past February, Revolver followed Nothing to a Rock to the Future session, and watched Palermo and his bandmates give musical instruction (and pass out Nothing swag) to the students in attendance. Frankly, it was hard to tell who enjoyed the experience more, the band or the kids. "It's kind of a way to steer them out of shit that's really easy to get into in these schools and neighborhoods," Palermo says of the program. "We've played a benefit for them, and played some shows with them, and I try to help them when I can. It's cool to be able to try to be a positive role model for somebody who might need one."
Though Palermo certainly has plenty of hard-earned wisdom to share with the Rock to the Future participants, he says he generally refrains from offering it up unless they ask first. "I don't know that I qualify as someone who should be giving any kids advice," he laughs, "but I keep it pretty real with the kids. They can read the internet, they know where I'm from, they know some of my history. The whole incarceration thing and Philadelphia go so hand-in-hand these days. I prefer when they ask me about that, because the only good that I can squeeze out of having that mistake in my life is to try to deter other people from making that same decision. I know that's the most clichéd thing you could say, but to be really frank, what else could you get out of losing so much time in your life?
"If it comes up, I'm like, 'Yeah, I was fucking stupid, and it was the worst thing that I ever did to myself. I fucked up my whole life. I put my mom through so much stress, I missed funerals of friends and family that died while I was in there, I didn't see my nephew born.' You have to say things that they can relate to, family-related stuff like that. But these kids are angels, over here. I have family members' kids who are fucking nightmares compared to these kids. These kids got talent, they've got great heads on their shoulders. I'm probably not doing shit but making a fool of myself in front of them half the time!"
Palermo's brush with the penal system has also motivated him to get involved with the Pennsylvania Prison Society, which has been advocating for the humane treatment of prisoners and their families for over two hundred years. Proceeds from the band's record release party in Philly will benefit the organization, and Palermo says he's hoping that this will be the first installment of an annual fundraising concert for local charities. He's also exploring the possibility of starting his own nonprofit, with the aim of helping repeal the mandatory minimum sentencing and mandatory probation guidelines imposed by the state on first-time offenders. "I've seen a lot of friends, growing up in Philly, that just get stuck in that probation revolving door, and it's pretty fucked up," he says. "It's not like anywhere else I've ever been. I've literally had friends who caught cases for marijuana when they were 16 or 17, and they're 35 years old now and still continually on probation. It's nuts."
Just as he never pictured himself recording in Woodstock with John Agnello, Palermo never imagined he'd be in a position to actually make a positive difference in society — but now that it's in his reach, he's grabbing on with both hands. "I would have never thought that this was possible, and I don't want to take it for granted," he says. "For better or worse, I've just got this itch now. I just want to do some things that will make things easier for the next person coming up. There's not a lot that anybody can do, as it is — so if you find yourself in an opportunity where you can, you should. We're all fucked, regardless. I'm a firm believer of that. But there's room to make things more pleasant, I think. The less pain the better, you know?"